MACDONNELL, DANIEL JAMES, schoolteacher and Presbyterian minister; b. 15 Jan. 1843 in Bathurst, N.B., eldest son of the Reverend George Macdonnell, a Church of Scotland minister, and Eleanor Milnes; m. 2 July 1868 Elizabeth Logie Smellie in Fergus, Ont., and they had five sons and two daughters; d. 19 Feb. 1896 in Fergus.
After receiving training at home in French and Latin and in English literature, Daniel James Macdonnell entered the grammar school in Bathurst at an early age. In 1851 his family moved to Scotland for the children’s education, but one year later his father decided to emigrate to Upper Canada, where he became the minister for the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland at Nelson and Waterdown, near Hamilton. James was enrolled briefly in the Gore District Grammar School in Hamilton under William Tassie* and in 1854 he was sent to Tassie’s new school in Galt (Cambridge) to prepare for university matriculation examinations. In October 1855, at the age of 12, he matriculated at Queen’s College in Kingston with an entrance scholarship. Graduating with honours in 1858, 15-year-old Macdonnell was immediately hired as head of the grammar school at Vankleek Hill.
One year later he accepted the assistant mastership of Queen’s College School, where he combined teaching with theological studies. In January 1862 he became headmaster of a school at Wardsville, near London; he remained there until the summer of 1863, when he went to the University of Glasgow to continue his theological education. There he was influenced by the speculative theology of John Caird, and he earned a reputation as an outstanding student. Macdonnell spent the summer of 1864 travelling in France and Switzerland, the following winter studying in Edinburgh, and about nine months of 1865–66 at university in Berlin and at Heidelberg; in 1866 he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a bd.
Because of his enquiring mind and his studies, Macdonnell had reservations about the Church of Scotland’s required subscription to the Westminster Confession, the church’s definitive statement of faith. Several times he considered refusing ordination because of his difficulty in accepting certain doctrinal statements in the Confession that seemed to present God as stern and unloving. Counselled by his father and friends, he resolved this “torment” of his soul temporarily and was ordained as a missionary on 14 June 1866 by the Presbytery of Edinburgh. He had refused the offer of a parish assistantship in Scotland, preferring instead to return to Upper Canada, where he was inducted to St Andrew’s Church, Peterborough, on 20 November.
At Peterborough, Macdonnell displayed “fearlessness, frankness, humility, spirituality,” and practicality. He was active in church courts and was soon marked as a promising young man who worked well with his fellow ministers. His concern for scriptural authority continued, but his time was occupied by parish work and by his marriage in July 1868 to a childhood friend, the eldest daughter of the Reverend George Smellie, Free Church minister in Fergus.
In 1870 Macdonnell, who had refused to leave Peterborough for more important and wealthier churches in Ottawa and Montreal, accepted a call to St Andrew’s, Toronto. The only Church of Scotland congregation in that city, St Andrew’s challenged his talents since its membership and income had not kept up with the growth of the city during the 28-year pastorate of its previous minister, the Reverend John Barclay. Before accepting the call Macdonnell advised the Presbytery of Toronto in December that, because of his reservations about the Westminster Confession, he could give only qualified answers to some of the prescribed questions. He was prepared to leave the ministry and return to teaching if his conditions were rejected, but his personal “crisis” passed when the presbytery approved his induction to St Andrew’s, which took place on 22 December.
Macdonnell’s effective pulpit style – intense rather than eloquent – marked him as the best Presbyterian preacher in Canada and one of the most outstanding in any Canadian church, and made St Andrew’s as widely known as any Protestant church in the country. Under his guidance the congregation nearly doubled in size within three years, actively supported home missions to western Canada (Macdonnell was appointed convener of the Manitoba mission committee and visited the northwest in 1873 by canoe), and built in 1874–75 a new manse and a large, expensive stone church at the corner of King and Simcoe streets [see William George Storm].
As the new St Andrew’s was being constructed, final arrangements were being made for a nation-wide union of Presbyterian churches in Canada and, although Macdonnell was not involved in negotiating the union of 1875, like most Queen’s graduates he favoured it and influenced the majority of his congregation to accept it. The union, which created the Presbyterian Church in Canada, did not immediately eliminate differences in style of worship, social outlook, and theological emphasis between the uniting parties. The Church of Scotland inclined towards formalism in church services and towards a latitudinarian approach to living and to doctrinal questions. The Free Church tradition, which came to dominate Canadian Presbyterianism, stressed strict behavioural conformity and an aggressively militant evangelicalism that demanded total confessional orthodoxy.
On 27 September, just three months after the union, the Montreal Daily Witness published a synopsis of a sermon preached in Toronto the previous day by Macdonnell expressing his doubt that the Westminster Confession’s statement on eternal punishment was consistent with biblical teaching. In effect he was contrasting the Confession’s controversial and complex doctrine of double predestination (salvation or damnation) to the New Testament teaching of divine love. Two days later two members of the Toronto presbytery criticized similar remarks he made at Knox College for their “unsettling tendency.” Macdonnell agreed with his friend George Monro Grant* that he had been hasty and indiscreet because sermons should not be based on theological speculation. Following objections raised by friends in Montreal, on 12 October the Witness published a fuller text of the sermon, which only drew more public attention to Macdonnell’s opinion. His controversial remarks seemed to support Free Church suspicions that the Church of Scotland and its theological, college were doctrinally unsound.
The protracted “heresy” trial of Daniel James Macdonnell that followed divided the clergy more than laity because of the theological subtlety of the arguments about damnation. The case, based on a statement by Macdonnell, was first heard late in 1875 by the Toronto presbytery and its moderator, Alexander Topp*, formerly of the Free Church. The issue turned on the interpretation of certain Greek scriptural expressions. Macdonnell’s sympathizers were not exclusively from the Church of Scotland; Principal William Caven* of Knox College and John Mark King, formerly of the Free Church, were instrumental in obtaining a compromise statement from Macdonnell that the presbytery accepted and sent to the church’s General Assembly of 1876 in the hope of silencing criticism. After Topp was elected moderator at the assembly, Macdonnell’s long-time friend John Cook of Quebec praised Macdonnell’s “mental candour” and Caven acknowledged his “fastidious conscience,” but Macdonnell’s comment that they had put his statement to the presbytery in “too favourable” a light embarrassed his friends and delayed a solution. His personal piety was above question, but his stubborn honesty divided the General Assembly on the question of the right to private judgement-defenders, including Alexander McKnight and John Bower Mowat, insisted that doubt was not denial; opponents, such as Donald Harvey MacVicar*, displayed traditional doctrinal rigidity.
The assembly allowed Macdonnell one year to explain his attitude towards the church’s teaching, but despite advice from friends and abuse from enemies nothing had changed when he submitted to the General Assembly of 1877 a new statement that opponents denounced as unsatisfactory. A motion by Topp demanding a “categorical answer” within 48 hours carried, but William Cochrane, a former Free Church minister, finally resolved the dispute through another committee which offered Macdonnell a choice of three compromise statements, any or all of which he could conscientiously accept. The doctrinal issue had not been solved – only Macdonnell’s right to doubt had been acknowledged – and although the union survived its first crisis, the heresy trial revealed the deep theological differences within its membership. The trial had also shown that Macdonnell was not alone in his emphasis on the priority of biblical truth over man-made creeds. A sizeable and bitter minority had been prepared to leave the new church if Macdonnell had not been exonerated. By reducing emphasis on doctrine, Macdonnell’s trial allowed Canadian Presbyterians to take a leading role in the development of biblical studies and of liberal theology. In April 1889 Macdonnell moved a resolution in the Toronto presbytery calling for the replacement of the Westminster Confession with “some briefer statement of the truths which are considered vital,” but the motion was lost because the majority of members refused to vote on a theological issue.
Even while his trial was in progress Macdonnell was appointed to General Assembly committees. In 1875 he joined the senate of Knox College as well as its boards of management and examiners. That year he also joined the home mission committee (western section), on which he served until 1893. In 1883 he was convener of the committee’s subcommittee for an augmentation scheme to create a reserve fund providing supplementary income for ministers on missions until the missions became financially self-sustaining, and he was a tireless traveller and speaker on behalf of the Augmentation Fund. Before his death 250 additional missions had become self-supporting congregations. In December 1889 he travelled as far as the Pacific coast while making a month-long inquiry into Presbyterian home missions.
In the late 1880s Macdonnell was active in the “equal rights” movement that arose following the passing of the Jesuits’ Estates Act by the Quebec legislature in July 1888 [see Honoré Mercier]. When the issue attracted popular attention in Ontario [see Christopher William Bunting], Macdonnell drafted condemnatory resolutions that were adopted by the Toronto Ministerial Association in March 1889. At a mass meeting held in that city the same month to protest the 1887 incorporation of the Jesuits, Macdonnell introduced the first resolution with an “earnest and eloquent speech [that] struck the key-note of the campaign.” After reviewing the history of the Jesuits, he asserted that its members were “hostile to freedom, both civil and religious,” and that their incorporation was “the thin edge of the wedge . . . driven far into the timber of Confederation.” In his opinion the “equal rights” movement existed to protect “the rights of British men” and “to preserve what is best for ourselves and our children.”
After the motion for federal disallowance of the Jesuits’ Estates Act was defeated in the House of Commons at the end of March 1889 (with only the “noble thirteen,” led by D’Alton McCarthy and William Edward O’Brien, supporting the motion), the Toronto Citizens’ Committee issued in early May “an address to the people of Ontario” drafted by Macdonnell. Charging that the controversy involved both constitutional law and civil and religious freedom, the address called for a convention to prepare petitions to the governor general. At that convention the following month the Equal Rights Association was founded and Macdonnell was active on its committee on resolutions. Meeting in Macdonnell’s church immediately after the convention, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada appointed him joint convener with D. H. MacVicar of a committee for the defence of civil and religious rights, which functioned for the next three years. During 1889 Macdonnell lectured on “equal rights” in Ontario cities and towns, and spent part of his summer holidays on a speaking tour of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He also served on the council of the ERA and supported its recommendation that separate schools be abolished in Ontario.
One of Macdonnell’s continuing interests was the work of the church’s hymnal committee. The General Assembly of 1878 received requests for the creation of one hymn-book to replace those used by the pre-union churches. That year a committee was created to develop a single hymnal to promote uniformity in worship. Macdonnell served on the committee from 1878 until his death and was convener of several of its subcommittees. With the contents of the hymn-book settled by 1880, Macdonnell was part of a two-man subcommittee to prepare indexes and convener of a subcommittee to produce an edition with music. While in England in the summer of 1881, he assisted in final revisions to the hymnal with tunes, published that autumn. When the committee prepared a children’s hymnal in 1883, Macdonnell was again convener of the subcommittee on music, and later was responsible for producing a harmonized edition of the book. Although he resigned from the committee in March 1894 because of ill health, he consented to travel to Edinburgh in April with the Reverend Alexander MacMillan to represent the Canadian church in discussions about a common hymnal for the use of Presbyterians in Scotland, England, Australia, and Canada. Even though Macdonnell’s health had not improved, he was reappointed to the committee in June 1894; in September 1895 he agreed to resume the office of convener of the subcommittee on music and continued the work until his death five months later.
Throughout his career Macdonnell had close and active ties to his alma mater, Queen’s. He served on the 1869–70 endowment committee of Principal William Snodgrass*, who, with George Monro Grant and Daniel Miner Gordon*, had defended Macdonnell (and by implication the soundness of theological teaching at Queen’s) during the heresy trial. When Snodgrass resigned suddenly in 1877, Macdonnell, a trustee of Queen’s since 1869, immediately recommended his friend Grant for the principalship. He worked closely with Grant in the following years to promote the interests of Queen’s, particularly in the endowment campaign of 1878. In his eulogy of Macdonnell to the Queen’s students in 1896, Grant stated that the university owed more to him than to any other man. Although more than $33,000 was subscribed towards the endowment of a chair in mental philosophy in his memory, the chair was apparently never established.
As early as 1888 Macdonnell’s health had been visibly declining, and in 1891 he was given leave of absence to visit Italy, Egypt, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and to revisit Britain with his wife. That same year, although not fully recovered in strength, he accepted the post of chaplain to the newly organized militia battalion called the 48th Highlanders. When the Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System met in Toronto in 1892, he took an unpopular stand by defending temperance against advocates of prohibition. His heavy round of preaching (often three sermons in a day), public lectures, parish responsibilities, and involvement in church and civic committees took a great toll of his energy. So did his oversight of the extensive inner city mission program that he fostered at St Andrew’s, which included the building of a pioneering social centre, St Andrew’s Institute, in 1890. The death of his wife in 1894 after a prolonged sickness was an emotional shock and a physical strain, as three of their seven children were less than nine years old. After he visited Scotland early in 1895, his illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis. He soon became too weak to work, and he remained with his late wife’s family in Fergus until his death on 19 Feb. 1896 at the age of 53.
Daniel James Macdonnell is the author of Death abolished: a sermon preached in St. Andrew’s Church, Toronto, on Sunday, 3rd March, 1889, in connection with the death of George Paxton Young . . . (Toronto, 1889); The minister’s New Year’s wish (n. p., 1891; copy at Presbyterian Church in Canada Arch., Toronto); and Who may be communicants in the Presbyterian Church?: being the substance of a sermon preached in St. Andrew’s Church, Toronto, on Sunday, October 23rd, 1887 (Toronto, 1887). The last was also offprinted from the Weekly Globe (Toronto), 2 Dec. 1887, in smaller format and with “A notable sermon” appearing at the head of the title.
Although no manuscript sources are now known, extensive Macdonnell papers were available to James Frederick McCurdy when he edited Life and work of D. J. Macdonnell, minister of St. Andrew’s Church, Toronto; with a selection of sermons and prayers (Toronto, 1897).
UCC-C, D. J. Macdonnell papers (contains copies of contemporary newspaper articles relating to his heresy trial). Knox College Monthly and Presbyterian Magazine (Toronto), 19 (1895–96): 533–41. PCC Acts and proc., 1875–95. Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, Minutes of the synod (Toronto), 1867. Presbyterian Record (Montreal), 21 (1896): 75. Westminster (Toronto), [2nd] ser., 1 (July–December 1896): 15, 69–73; 3 (July–December 1897): 15. Queen’s University Journal (Kingston, Ont.), 7 March 1896. Mrs Robert Campbell, “A champion of augmentation: Rev. D. J. Macdonnell, B.D.,” Missionary pathfinders: Presbyterian laborers at home and abroad, ed. W. S. MacTavish (Toronto, 1907), 94–103. W. L. Grant and Frederick Hamilton, George Monro Grant (Edinburgh and Toronto, 1905). W. B. McMurrich, Historical sketch of the hymnal committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (London and Toronto, ). J. R. Miller, Equal rights: the Jesuits’ Estates Act controversy (Montreal, 1979). J. C. McLelland, “The Macdonnell heresy trial,” Canadian Journal of Theology (Toronto), 4 (1958): 273–84.
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Cite This Article
John S. Moir, “MACDONNELL, DANIEL JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonnell_daniel_james_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||John S. Moir|
|Title of Article:||MACDONNELL, DANIEL JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|